Monday, June 20, 2005

What is to be done or a quietist alarmed by modern politics

Something originally written in my diary at DailyKos:

At first 1989 seemed like the defining moment: walls came tumbling down. Muscular liberalism was vindicated: Kennan, Truman, Marshall. And even Churchill, Eisenhower and Adenauer backed up of course by domestic social democracy and strong labour movements. American forcefulness and European engagement had worked their overwhelming combination against the hostile pseudo-stalinist structures in the East. Maybe history was not ending but it seemed as if the first baby steps were being taken towards ending history. Visible progress in front of our very eyes - reason and enlightenment finally on the march.

But now the defining moment seems actually to be Monica Lewinsky and the morally bankrupt and cynical response towards the psychopatic attack of 9/11 as encapsulated in the presidential election of 2004, the scary symbol of our times. If you would rationally evaluate Kerry and Bush campaigns from the loosest of common perspectives: some sort of arrangement of market economy, the most basic liberal democratic values of liberty and equality, a respect for the right to pursuit happiness - if you would do only that, there would still be no competition. The Kerry campaign did not have all the answers and it had many very bad answers, but no comparison: if reason and information would be the determing factors, Kerry would have annihilated Bush even more throughly than Johnson destroyed Goldwater. But Kerry lost. Faith prevailed over reason, passion conquered rationality, blatant disinformation was more effective than genuine information.

For me as a liberal (more in the classical European sense though in local politics I am a sort of pragmatic, agnostic social democrat) the election was a sickening process. The Bush administration's policies after 9/11 have been a horrible moral bankrupty, the rational and effective Euro-Atlantic alliance is now broken, the centre cannot hold any longer. How did the original theory go? That people are fundamentally rational and enlightened and need only to be liberated from the reactionary structures and they would then establish a humane society based on compassion and reason? But this is clearly not so. History seems to be not only a crime but a punishment for a crime: reactionary structures are not only a cause, they are also a concequence.

At first it seemed that capitalism necessitated liberalism and that liberalism in turn necessitated social democracy which would then control the worst excesses and instabilities of the markets. But we gravitate towards power structures, not towards reason: what best protects capital has always proven to be the most successful historical arrengement. For a time it was Protestantantism, then followed an upgraded version with Enlightenment and Liberalism and during the dark times of the early 20th century capitalism's inherent instability even required social democracy for its protection. But those times are long over now.

Now we have the mindless entertainment industry (backed up by a very unequal and steadily worsening educational system) and morally and intellectually castrated fundamentalist religion to safeguard capital which is and has been for the last 600 hundred years the highest form of power in our civilization. In the election intelligence and information pointed to one direction and one direction only, there was no comparison: Kerry was infinitely the better answer intellectually and rationally than Bush. But intellect and reason do not guide the mankind as a collective: blind passion and fear do. Stupidity is programmed to overcome intelligence.

So, what is to be done? Who would actually know? History is a chaotic process and no-one can determine the long term concequences of action. But we do have a moral imperative to act even if perpetually outnumbered and outgunned. For me personally the immediate reaction has been a sort of political radicalization and re-examination of my previous cold war liberalism. Fundamentally my values are still the same: to me anti-communism is still exactly as heroic and self-evident than anti-fascism and Joe McArthy the greatest gift ever to Soviet Union (a state founded and governed by terror and torture) - but it seems that what I thought was the fundamental engine of the postwar era, was not the fundamental engine.

The military- industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine: it was a lucky co-incidence that the Soviet empire happened to be as brutal and as anti-liberal as Nazi Germany, but the most important thing was that it was also hostile to capital and private investment. And now there are no Trumans or Kennedys needed to guide and lead the West. What we have now left is the naked power and unreason, no velvet gloves necessary any more: Bush and Cheney with their short sightedness, with their distructive and self-defeating policies, their moral bankruptcy, their blind agency of global market structures. The sheer irrationality and emptiness of capitalism which I now fear is not a cause but a concequence. So, what is to be done?


helsinkian said...

Wow, you ask huge questions. I wouldn't equate Kerry with reason and Bush with feeling, both combine these traits but to different degrees. Bush is NOT stupid, sometimes he has even had to fake stupidity to court the voters in Texas who were first turned off by his Yale antics.

First of all, there is more to global politics than United States and Europe. Many people in the Bush camp are very worried about the victories of Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina - Latin America is actually turning toward social democracy in an unprecedented fashion. The latest elections in India were very similar to those in the United States - the secular Congress Party won, not by reason but because the people felt for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (the Americans feel for the Bush dynasty). Voting for political dynasties is an echo of the old longing for royalty that still has a certain power in the popular imagination (a different context in India but the paradox in many poor people voting for an élite dynasty is similar to that of the United States).

One of the reasons why Bush won is the threat of totalitarianism. Saddam is such a poster boy for everything that Stalin and Hitler stood for and Bush put him behind bars. It's not that Saddam threatened America. But previous Republicans and Democrats, like previous European governments had tolerated Saddam. It's not like he was committing genocide on his own, WE (yes, we the west) equipped and financed him because of our greed for oil.

The race for the next US president is wide open and either party can win. There is no given winner. Bush and his decisions, good and bad, will not be a factor in that race. To win the Democrats have to regroup and focus in the future. To win an election in America you have to believe in winning and make people believe in your cause. Bush is more of a preacherly type than Kerry, that appeals to large masses. Bush reminds me of Bobby Kennedy, the fallen idol of 1968, who roused the feelings of a nation (not with reason but with passionate rhetoric) and who also happened to be a scion of an élite dynasty. Don't forget that the Kennedy brothers were also partly idolized because they were perceived to be passionate to the point of being reckless.

But there are social democratic or liberal (in the American sense) politicians who do appeal to wide masses with reason and who have a global importance despite the poverty of their nations. I'm referring to the Lula and Kirchner phenomena yet again. The same Argentines who went for Perón (the ultimate feeling-based politician) are trying to build a better tomorrow and somehow reason their way out of the disastrous mess they've been in since they decades ago lost their status as one of the richest nations of the Earth.

stockholm slender said...

Well, I definitely see a break, a chasm even between, say, Reagan and Bush sr administrations and the present one. Iraq did not have serious links with al Qaida, it did not pose a serious or imminent threat to the US and the West. Yes, Saddam was a bloody dictator oppressing his people. That was not the stated reason for war - nor do I believe that it was the real reason for war. It was war of choice, deliberately engaged in a manner to destabilize the Atlantic alliance. It is a war of imperial hubris. As for domestic policies we have a shameless, corrupt pampering of the corporate elites with some red meat for the Christian fundamentalists as well. These definitely are scary times: the worst are really full of passionate intensity...

helsinkian said...

I think the policy of Reagan and Bush sr. administrations toward Iraq was that stability works. Yes, the elder Bush went to war to liberate Kuwait but he left Saddam in power (after empty promises to the Shia who got slaughtered by Saddam), I think, because he was afraid of the alternatives to Saddam. Stability in the case of Iraq meant tolerating a régime that was responsible for mass murder.

I think this Iraq issue depends much on how we see history. Industrialized mass murder is a part of modern politics. Think about what the Turks did to the Armenians, the Nazis to the Jews, Stalin's purges, Pol Pot's Killing Fields and Saddam gassing the Kurds. We can comparably in body count say that Saddam wasn't "as bad" as these others. But he's as bad, as criminal as it gets, to actually have been caught.

A part of modern politics is also looking the other way when something of the like happens, especially if you profit by doing business with the mass murderers. The thought of Saddam actually getting away with his crimes is sickening to me. I know this isn't just about Saddam and bringing him to justice, we're talking about a very complex issue involving world peace, the future of the Atlantic alliance, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, oil and water, vested interests. Yet I have no doubt that the end of Saddam's reign of terror was one of the most desirable outcomes in global politics in recent times.

A British friend of mine used to rant for years about the need to go to war to bring down Saddam. Those were the days when Blair's Britain seemed the most concerned about Saddam and bringing him to justice and Clinton's America was keeping a lower profile. I was a bit skeptical about my war hawk friend, even if I was more than eager to see the end of Saddam's reign. I was afraid of the price of war, though. Then came the day when Bush the bogeyman invaded Iraq and my friend turned antiwar overnight because the war had been started for the wrong reasons. By then I was pretty convinced that getting rid of Saddam was the right thing to do.

Sure there were wrong reasons and right reasons but some of the right reasons can be built upon to restore the Atlantic alliance if both America and Europe take freedom and human rights seriously. There are people in the Bush administration who take foreign policy seriously. So far I would rate Colin Powell and Condi Rice higher than their counterparts in the Reagan and Bush sr. administrations. I know the decisions are not made in the State Department and other people in the administration have other agendas.

Most of my objections toward the Bush administration have to do with domestic policy, although I'm certainly critical on their unilateralist attitude toward international treaties. Some of their bad foreign policy is a direct continuation of the ignorant domestic policy. But Americans knew about the record of the administration. I can't see that record as black and white.

The war in Iraq has so far had good consequences and bad consequences and most of the long term consequences are unpredictable. I think bringing Saddam to justice is the best consequence to come out of it and a trial could bring Iraq a sense of closure and the rest of us a heightened awareness of how bad the tyrant's crimes were and how criminal acts we were willing to tolerate as long as we (Europe and others, including the United States) expected to get oil from Saddam in return.

stockholm slender said...

I used to be for quite interventionist Western policy: I applauded the ending of the war in Bosnia and the intervention in Kosovo. But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This war dishonestly started, insufficiently, chaotically and incompetently prosecuted will poison the international atmosphere for years and will probably end up with a more inward looking and passive America than for generations. This is an America First policy with an agressive, interventionist twist and it will come to a sorry end. But even aside from this moral and practical bankruptcy I have begun to think that large scale armed interventions don't work. The price is too high - what we need is a combination of resoluteness and engagement, the kind of combination that brought the victory in the Cold War. We are not capable of bigger tasks.

In that sense this sorry, disgusting Bush jr spectacle has made me more conservative, more cautious about these semi-Leninist projects of history shaping. I think you don't share my sense of outrage and worry and are anyway more right wing in the first place - so while you are fairly matter of fact about the current situation, I am quite emotional in my disgust. But it is certainly nice to hear rational counter arguments in these days when I barely can tolerate Andrew Sullivan's libertarianism though his intellectual independency is beyond question...

helsinkian said...

Am I more right wing in the first place? Not very much, I think. Does interventionism have to be right wing? I'm not an unequivocal supporter of interventionism but I think Saddam Hussein is a special case. My friend who banged the war drum for years in our long discussions on the topic actually votes LibDem because he thinks Tony Blair is too right wing. That would obviously explain why he was against the war when it began given the officially stated reasons.

The thing is I don't see the tyranny vs. democracy debate in any way related to a left-wing against right-wing dispute. I feel far more for dissidents in left-wing Communist prisons and right-wing Fascist prisons in authoritarian countries than I feel for the governments we have here in the free world. Be they right-wing or left-wing, their enlightened self-interest tends to be toward supporting stability rather than régime change.

Of course I'm not advocating a military overthrow of each and every dictator but the big problem is that most dictators have powerful friends and business associates among Western élites. How about human rights in China? That'll come with time, business first. In the meantime the current policy of China may irreparably destroy the environment of that country. Authoritarian régimes are dangerous in more ways than one.

I'm against authoritarianism more than anything else. My Atlanticism and pro-Europeanism are also ideologies that build on the view that democracies should co-operate in combatting totalitarianism. That kind of co-operation I'd like to see regardless of whether the left or the right happens to be in power.

I'm also alarmed by modern politics because I see great dangers looming out there. The combination of nuclear proliferation and terrorism does not bode well. The state of the global environment is not good. Globalization can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whose terms (if there will be any rules to begin with) it will continue.

stockholm slender said...

Well, in that sense we are actually in broad agreement - though I don't see the West strong enough to impose its values: our values would get undermined and corrupted in the process of imposing them by arms (just as is happening in Iraq). We must also be practical: how many less Iraqis will end up being killed, how many will be more free if a theocratic administration is established? If we go in, we should go because an existential defensive issue and we should go fully committed and for the duration. None of this is true in this case. So, why should I think that the cost has been acceptable even though some good things have been established?

I call myself (jokingly) an extreme middle way Liberal: I'm fairly pragmatic as to economic questions (a sort of social democrat if anything) though I see freedom to mean also freedom from want. But without freedom wealth does not mean much. So a belief in reason, liberty, equal worth - I would say that these I minority views everywhere, even in the West.

helsinkian said...

Is freedom a Western value? Is it really thanks to the West and Western philosophy that much of the world is free now? The reason you believe in as a universal value is very closely related to the notion of George W. Bush that everyone wants to be free. Yes, I believe in reason too and I believe in freedom. I also know that the concentration camps and the gulags and poison gas are modern achievements of a reason that has been submitted to the will to power. In some sense freedom has to be enforced, even militarily. If some people hadn't stood up to Hitler militarily...

Can values be exported by military means? I agree with you, absolutely not.

I like to point out from the war debate the views that Middle Eastern people aren't capable of freedom if left to fend for themselves. Consequently some antiwar people say it's useless to waste effort on them because they'll never learn and some prowar people say we have to force them to accept our values at gunpoint or die.

But I see hope in the Middle East. I also see much hatred, violence and terrorism. Fifteen years from now countries like Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE and possibly others may turn out to be trend-setting and philosophically and culturally significant to us. I think some kind of idea of freedom can bring about a more tolerant and peaceful Middle East. It won't be the idea we export to them but their own indigenous adaptation of freedom. As the very key to a flourishing Middle East and a higher Arabic-language culture I see what some call a Western notion, the emancipation of the Arab woman.

I think life in Iraq will change but it could never have changed as long as Saddam was in power. Yes, it can also change for the worse as in a theocracy. The day the war is lost all those of my friends who have been saying it was wrong from the very beginning will enjoy the privilege of having been historically right. I don't want that we come to that day. I feel some want that to happen just to see the defeat of Bush. Now I'm not writing here to defend Bush personally, I want to defend freedom.

It is one debate whether it was right and justified to invade Iraq and another one is what is to be done now? Freedom of thought, democracy and tolerance should be encouraged in the Middle East. Not by starting more wars but by taking the importance of these issues in that crucial region seriously. Middle Eastern peoples have been oppressed by dictators who have been helped in stifling dissent by Western governments. It has been in our interests to actively discourage and imprison these people in systems like Saddam's and then call them ignorant savages for not being able to topple their dictators alone. No wonder the easy answers of fundamentalist religion have been so attractive to many of them.

Bush is calling for the downfall of these dictators. Some of them have done tremendous services for US business interests. I think it would be easier for the oil companies to do business with dictators than with unpredictable democracies. I'm not saying that Bush hasn't been the best friend of the Texan oil interests because he has. What is good for freedom is not necessarily good for the US national interest in the short run. But if the United States will, for a change, with European help, promote democracy in the Middle East, then the current policy will be a change for the better from the very bad past policy of bribing "stable" dictators because it is easier to do business with them.

Spreading freedom is about much more than military interventions. Remember the Marshall Plan? Even the complete defeat of Hitler could have led to a worse disaster quickly had there not been the will for a concerted effort to reconstruct Europe.

stockholm slender said...

No, I do believe that Middle Easteners can be free, that freedom is (fundamentally) a universal value. But there are complications: where is the demand for freedom, where is the broad popular movement that we could meaningfully support? We can't impose liberty from above if there is no or very little demand for it. This seems to be the case actually: yes, liberty is universal but history is particular, the constellations of cultural structures are different and change slowly - maybe liberty will one day develope and take root in the Middle East, hopefully so, but there is not much that we can do that would help the process and much that could hinder it.

As to will to power... Is that not more unreason than reason, is not Nietzsche (and the assorted fascists) in rebellion against Kant, against Enlightenment? I think it requires strong nerves, resilience to live rationally in a godless universe - and the blind, aggressive passion we are witnessing (and have witnessed) is the irrational concequence of fear, of panic.

helsinkian said...

I think the Kurds have been demanding their freedom for a long time. I don't think the argument about the lack of demand for freedom in Iraq has ever included the Kurds. I also think there is a plausible case for moderate Shi'a politics becoming the dominant force in Iraq in the future.

The will to power is unreason but I often like to look at the continuities in philosophy. I say that Arab women need more freedom. Olympe de Gouges, who faced the guillotine of the French revolution because of her pleas for women's rights, might have (in my anachronistic speculation) agreed with me. Kant, a truly great philosopher of the Enlightenment, didn't see any need at all for women's rights. Certain later unreasonable thinkers would have agreed with him on that one.

Why do I see the issue of women's rights as crucial to the future of the Middle East? Literacy is the cornerstone of reason. Teaching the girls to read is in my mind the most effective investment to ensure a functioning civil society in the Arab countries. Many regional habits such as killings of honor would decrease if women had more say in society. This is something the United Nations is very strongly promoting for the region. The popular movements for freedom tend to come with education.

Strict dictatorships can of course both educate the people and keep them silent at gunpoint. I support more education, more reason and less dictatorships. I've read reports that say that women in Iraq feel it's more dangerous walking in the street now than during Saddam's rule and reports that say that Afghan women are treated badly by both Taleban and anti-Taleban people. But the opportunities for freedom are there. They should not be wasted.

All in all, there are many fascinating paradoxes in this equation. The fact that Iraqi women in some sense had freedoms that their sisters in the neighbouring countries didn't have contains also the promise that they will not give in to the clerics who want to build a theocracy. The fundamentalists and the terrorists have the oppression of women (a significant part of their people) as the number one priority. That makes them vulnerable.

stockholm slender said...

I don't know - how could we have a liberal democracy with individual rights in such a hostile context? How could women (or sexual minorities, a cause very near my heart) emerge from that long tradition of oppression? I see the cultural dynamics being central in political questions and would be somewhat pessimistic even with our Western society (so busily entertaining ourselves to death and rejecting any real ideas of citizenship). In some ways I am quite a stern republican and can't see our present liberties as very deeply rooted or well defended. It seems almost like reason itself would be just a byproduct of blind historical forces which are now changing to produce something else instead. We are not conscious enough of our radical freedom, nor self-assured enough to trust our exploration of rational identity. If the historical tide changes so will we. In this sense I am becoming quite bleak and pessimistic - not seeing true progress anywhere...

Farmeri Bob said...

What a fine exchange! Helsinkian's views are more like my own, but you both are informed, rational, goodhearted, advocates for humanity. Wish there were more of your kind.

Hope I'll find more such exchanges here.

-Robert USA:sta (Mutta kerran olin ulkomaalinen Helsingissa)

stockholm slender said...

Isn't it though somehow very academic to talk rationally about current events? Reason surely is not guiding humankind's actions - or a very limited, narrow reason clouded by many primal passions and fears. I have a feeling of being a worried spectator wishing for things to slow down and get back under some sort of control, some sort of moderation. It might be just an individual observation rising from individual circumstance, but I have become quite dispirited about our Western Civilization lately: the old structures are going or gone and not much outside empty materialism has replaced them. And I do knwo that this echo some very unpleasant criticisms (Heidegger and Nietzsche come to mind), but for liberalism and freedom are not about materialism, about material wealth, but something far more spiritual, far more relevant. Oh well, very pompous text this!